The first fourteen miles of my marathon yesterday were glorious, and I was flying even as I held myself back from going faster, light on my feet, feeling like I would never get tired. The race began at 7 AM, before the sun came up over the mountains, and so for the first hour we were running in the not-quite-light of the morning. For much of that first hour, we followed a river and watched it catch the light of the slowly emerging sun. Around the 6-mile mark, we rounded a corner and I saw rays of sunlight shooting through the trees and bathing the runners just ahead of me in that idyllic glow that you often see in running-related stock photos. I choked up a little.
Remember this, I said to myself. The sunlight, beautiful though it was, burned hot even though the trees were still filtering it as best they could. More sun was coming, I knew, because I still had hours to go and it was only getting higher. The shade would not last and neither would the gentle downhills. I knew this, and I wasn’t dreading it, because in that moment nothing could take away my happiness. Remember everything about this, I repeated: the light, the trees, the figures, the quiet sound of running feet. The feeling that you are here doing this because you want to and not because you have something to prove. The knowledge that there is no pressure to perform, that whatever you do is the right thing, that you cannot possibly, POSSIBLY fail today.
And while the beauty and the bliss of that moment was short-lived, the feeling of freedom and ownership was not. The race took a (literal) turn after the 14-mile mark onto a busy road not closed to traffic, and the sun hit us like a ton of bricks as we struggled up our first seriously sustained uphill of the course. Thereafter, we were mostly running with traffic on paved roads with barely any shade. At one point around the 20-mile mark, we turned into a park with slightly more tree cover, but by then the sun was high enough in the sky to reach into every corner and find me. In the last 10K I had to negotiate between my extremely dry mouth begging me to stop at every water stop and my increasingly sloshy stomach saying NO MORE WATER PLEASE (I settled for swishing water around and then spitting it out, and then taking a second cup and pouring it down my back). I gratefully accepted an enormous ice cube from a young kid out in front of his house and stuck it down my shirt. And I pretty much hated every minute of that last hour, hated it with all my being.
Marathons, however, are a package deal. The struggles come with the territory, and many of us who do them over and over derive no small pleasure from having persisted through that last hour despite hating every minute. This pain is the unavoidable part, but it is, as at least one spectator’s sign will surely tell you, temporary.
The pain that doesn’t fade with rest and recovery is the pain of perceived failure, and of disappointment. And while the second half of this marathon was a struggle in all those sensory ways, there was nothing in that struggle that involved anxiety about how I was performing or fear of disappointing anyone. That is the pressure that has crushed my spirit in so many races. Tired legs, squinty eyes, sweaty hands, mouth full of sand, all these things I can handle and even look back on with pride. These things cannot break me as long as my mind and my spirit are on my side. This time, they were. I hated everything about that last hour, but: without the fear that I was not only suffering but also failing, everything about it was survivable.
The fear of failing the marathon is pervasive and crushing, and it really doesn’t have to be that way. For those of us who are NOT elites, NOT relying on our finish times to feed our families and keep our houses, there really is no way to fail. But the idea that your marathon finish time actually says something meaningful about you seems to go largely unexamined. It’s okay to want to get fitter and stronger and faster; it’s okay to want to break four hours in the marathon someday (I do!) and it’s okay to want to qualify for Boston or qualify for the Olympic Trials or whatever your heart desires. I wish so very, very much, though, that we could hold these desires in our hearts without letting them run our lives or feel like we’re failing when we don’t achieve them this time.
In past races, I have harbored deeply-felt, often very secret wishes and expectations about what my marathon finish time will be, only to be sorely disappointed in myself when I fall short. Yesterday, I truly didn’t know what my time would be until I rounded the bend and the finish line came into view. Based on my easy-effort pace these days, I knew that barring any catastrophes, it would in all likelihood fall somewhere between 4:10 and 4:45, depending on weather and how effectively I held myself back in the beginning, but before I rounded the bend and started barreling towards the finish line, that was all I had to go on. I ran the whole race without looking at the data on my watch, paying attention only to my breathing and my legs and how I felt rather than to whatever pace I thought I *should* be running. Even when it hurt and everything sucked, I was in control, and more importantly, I was unafraid. I was not behind. I was responding to my senses, moving forward, and trusting that as I could jog for as long as it took to get me to the end. I felt confident that no one I actually cared about would be judging me as a coach or as a person based on my finish time. Not even me. 4:36 was certainly not the absolute best-case-scenario outcome, and two years ago it would not have been good enough for me by any stretch of the imagination. Today, it feels like a footnote.
What I remember is that ray of light at mile 6 and that feeling of unshakeable happiness and pride in my being there, skipping along on a mere 10 weeks of training and hardly any sacrifice or hardship at all in the preparation. This morning I carried my snuggly 4-year-old (who is not a feather) down the stairs without grimacing, because I wanted to. A few days from now, I’ll be itching to lace up my shoes again and keep going, just as I have been for the last two years. The marathon has not seen the last of me.